By Oliver Gibson – KLTV Contributor
2019 saw the loss of what’s known as the ‘Red Wall’ for the Labour Party in many areas in the North of England.
Seats such as Blyth Valley, Sedgefield and Bolsover, which had been represented by Labour since they were created, turned blue – allowing for Boris Johnson’s landslide victory in the election.
Reasons listed as to why so much of the Red Wall was lost in 2019 included points about Labour’s stance on Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in general.
But with the UK having now formally left the European Union and with Corbyn having left the Labour leadership in April, this has raised questions as to the strength of the Conservatives’ base of support in their former Red Wall territories.
If the conditions for a swing to the Conservatives are not present in the 2024 election, then Labour could regain what was lost in 2019, but this is not a given.
History of the ‘Red Wall‘
The Labour Party has traditionally enjoyed a reliably strong level of support in urban areas in the North of England since the 1920s.
Successive general elections appeared to entrench the notion that Labour could trust a considerable number of seats to vote for them no matter the circumstances.
And even in the 1979, 1983 and 1987 general elections, which took place during a period of great divide within the Labour Party, the ‘Red Wall’ seats stayed safely red.
While the Party was able to enjoy strong successes in the years 1997-2010 under Tony Blair, winning three consecutive landslide general election victories, the time since has been far less kind on the Party, with it losing its all but watertight position in Scotland in 2015 and its iron-clad position in ‘Red Wall’ areas in 2019.
The role of Brexit in the last election
The loss of many Red Wall seats was not brought about by a sudden revulsion towards the Labour Party by voters in the North.
In fact, many ex-Labour voters interviewed on election day expressed dismay at the fact that they voted Conservative, listing Brexit as a major factor in their decision.
Lord Ashcroft’s 2016 report on Brexit, named ‘How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why,’ offered a deep sociological analysis of the leave and remain camps.
It was revealed that ‘the older the voters’ were, ‘the more likely they were to have voted to leave’.
It was also revealed that the ‘AB social group,’ the most affluent, was the ‘only social group among whom a majority voted to remain’ and that support for Brexit increased as affluence decreased on the social scale.
In appealing to these generally pro-Brexit social groups in 2019, the Conservatives were able to run a highly successful campaign, with their election victories in 2010, 2015 and 2017 paling in comparison.
In the end, the Conservatives became slightly more popular in terms of support from the working class than Labour simply for their stance on Brexit.
Case studies: Scotland and London
Labour lost their position as the governing party of Scotland in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, where the SNP became the primary party in Edinburgh.
It was not until 2015, however, that the SNP truly took over in Scotland, wiping away the Labour heartlands that had remained loyal since the 1945 general election, taking 56 out of a total of 59 seats in Scotland and becoming a major force in Westminster.
Since then, Labour has failed to regain ground in Scotland, with the Party even being overtaken by the Conservatives, who are generally unpopular in the country, who have become the biggest opposition in the Scottish Parliament.
Judging by the strong performance of the SNP in the 2019 general election, and the return of Ruth Davidson as the Conservative leader in the Scottish Parliament, it seems as though Labour is in for yet another disappointing time in the Scottish elections next year.
But does this mean that Labour will be unable to regain their lost Red Wall seats?
The example of London offers a more encouraging view for Labour. While the Conservatives had won the 2000, 2004 and 2008 London Assembly elections, Labour’s Ken Livingston had been the Mayor of London since the office was created.
In the 2008 mayoral election, however, Livingston was defeated by Boris Johnson, who remained in office until 2016, when Sadiq Khan was able to retake the office for the Labour Party.
The Party enjoyed its greatest successes of the 2019 general election in London, gaining one seat and cementing its position.
However, this strong base of support in London hindered Labour’s campaign in 2019 in Red Wall areas, with some describing the Party as being too focused on London.
This was perhaps best seen in the Party’s push for a second referendum on Brexit, a move which was incredibly popular with its membership and yet did the Party no favours in Red Wall seats in the North.
Nevertheless, it demonstrates how a party can reengage with a former base of support and successfully retake it.
The Covid-19 pandemic and national polls
Without a doubt, the public has been more focused on the Covid-19 pandemic than Brexit in 2020.
The year that was promised to be a ‘fantastic’ one for Britain by Boris Johnson turned out to be quite the opposite, and the same has been true for the rest of the world.
The polling data since the last election indicates that a swing towards Labour has occurred, taking the Party from 29% in January 2020 to 38% in December, with Labour now neck and neck with the Conservatives.
Minor parties have remained largely stagnant, with neither the Lib Dems, the SNP or the Greens being above 10%.
Public support for the Government’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic has now settled at 36%, enjoying small increases since Autumn.
When compared to other European countries, this is a disappointment for the Government, with only France and Spain being behind the UK in terms of public support.
While the Government has been repeatedly criticised by Keir Starmer on Covid testing numbers and the test-and-trace system, the fact that Britain was the first country in the world to get the Pfizer Covid vaccine is considered by many to be a success, and one that the Government might well use in their campaign in 2024.
Conversely, Labour might feature the UK’s death rate from Covid, which is at the moment second only to Italy’s, in their own campaign. This could be a helpful strategy for Labour’s campaign nationally, as well as in former Red Wall seats.
Conclusions for the future
With the Brexit trade deal having just now been agreed, it is possible that Brexit will have truly been laid to rest by the time of the next general election.
It is impossible to say for certain what the economic impact of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union will be in the long term, however, fears of a no-deal arrangement have now been quelled once and for all.
Boris Johnson has hailed the trade deal, which is worth £660 billion pounds, as a victory for the Government, noting that ‘we have taken back control of our laws and our destiny’ in his speech from No. 10 following the announcement of the agreement of the deal on Christmas Eve.
The popularity of the deal has yet to be gauged by pollsters and the media, with many lacking the time to read all of the 1,246 pages of the agreement over the Christmas break.
This will be an important campaigning point for both the Government and for Labour in the years up to the next election and perhaps even beyond.
For now, though, it is known that the Government will be supported by the Labour Party on the vote on the deal in Parliament, with news of Keir Starmer’s intention to whip Labour MPs to vote for the deal-making headlines on Christmas Eve.
However, it seems as though a ‘frontbench revolt,’ as described in the Guardian, is on the way, despite Starmer’s assertion that he would hold the Government to account for ‘every second’ that it is in power.
The views, opinions and information expressed in this piece are soley those of the author and do not represent those of Kirklees Local Television Ltd.